The Wandering Piper

The Georgian era was nearing its end, and regional newspapers were well established in many towns and cities across Britain, alive with discussion and gossip of the day. In the spring of 1829 a new mystery would intrigue the nation with the appearance of a mystery piper travelling through the land. Who was he, and why had he undertaken this perambulation?

At the end of May the Berkshire Chronicle and Bucks and Windsor Herald printed accounts of a mysterious piper in Cheltenham, and by the 2nd June 1829 he was in Gloucester providing a distracting anecdote for the papers there.

On 9th June 1829 the London Morning Post gave a report that this character had been in Bath on the 5th June; “THE SPORTING PIPER – This character whose wanderings through the country have excited great curiosity, made his appearance in this city yesterday evening, dressed in his suit of coarse grey, with Scotch cap and green spectacles, and escorted by two attendants, who kept close behind him to afford protection against the crowd of people that pushed forward to have a peep at the gentleman beggar. The terms of the wager for which he has undertaken this extraordinary enterprise are not known, but it is generally agreed that he has backed himself against a friend, who is travelling through France as a fiddler, to collect more money in one year in the United Kingdom, than his competitor in France with his violin. Opinions differ respecting the identity of the Scottish piper as much as to the nature of the wager, but rumour entitles him Captain BARCLAY. He commenced this itinerant occupation on the 12th June last year; since which period he has traversed nearly the whole of Ireland and Scotland. We understand that in Ireland his contributions amounted to upwards of 127 l and in Scotland he received about 144 l.”
Captain Barclay, the noted pedestrian
who was at first confused with our piper.

The identification of this mystery piper with Captain Barclay was persistent in the reports, but incorrect. Robert Barclay Allardice was a well known 'Sporting Pedestrian' and made the idea of wagers for walking feats popular in early 19
th century Britain. His most famous walk was undertaken in 1809 when he walked 1000 miles in 1000 hours for 1000 guineas. That Captain Barclay was Scottish by birth no doubt fuelled the (mis-)identification as the wandering piper. However Barclay's popularisation of such activities may have encouraged our mystery piper.

A few days after his appearance in Bath, the mystery bagpiper was in Exeter, described by the Western Times as “the incognito gentleman bagpipe player”. By the 20th June the Westmorland Gazette was printing a short item in its miscellany columns about “The Sham Bagpiper” currently perambulating through Somerset, and how he contradicted the claims that he was Captain Barclay and he was tired of hearing this. This account also claimed that he was nearing the end of his travels.

By Friday 14th August 1829 more details were appearing, or at least the story was becoming more elaborate, when the Chester Chronicle related the following; “THE GENTLEMAN PIPER – Our brother editors are very much divided in opinion as to the identity, and rank in society, of this wandering minstrel. Some will have it that he is a sporting Captain, who is bent on winning a wager, by maintaining himself, with something to spare, by the gratuitous rewards of his minstrelsy, while others, and amongst them the Scotsman Edinburgh paper, denounce him as “a puir carle” to whom the fare at an English inn is a luxury far beyond what he ever enjoyed in his “ain kintry”. Be this as it may, a tall gaunt figure, dressed in gray linsey wolsey, with flaxen wig and “spectacles on nose” has been sojourning amongst us for two or three days past. He walks through the streets every day playing a lilt on an instrument something between the Irish and Scotch bagpipe. It has all the shrillness and “singing i'the nose” of the latter, but the airbag is supplied by a pair of bellows as in the former. The minstrel is but an indifferent performer and does not excite much attention, nor apparently seems to care if he does or not. We understand that his papers come to Mr Kearsley's, the Nag's Head, where he puts up, addressed “Capt Gordon” and that he has numerous receipts from the parish officers in the various districts through which he has passed, for the sums he has paid into their hands, the surplus from his receipts after defraying his expenses. We guess the burden of the poors' rates in this city will not be materially lessened by the minstrel's donations at his departure.”

As well as a new possible identity of the mystery piper, this account gives a rare description of what the instrument was, and from this we learn that it was a bellows blown pipe, though the journalist was not really knowledgeable enough to leave us a full detail. From other reports it is clear that he can walk along whilst playing, so these were not a set of uilleann pipes.

The reporter in the Chester Chronicle continues the article by showing how the mystery piper has inspired imitators; “We find the following in the Paisley Advertiser of last week:-'The flattering accounts of the supposed gentleman who is now vagabondising it through the country, has, in the present dulness of trade in this town, induced an individual of sporting celebrity, for some large bets, to undertake a similar trip of profit and pleasure. He has engaged to beg for three weeks in England, and at the end of that time to return with £20 as the fruits of his mendicity. His first attempt, we understand, will be made, as we have heard, on the sympathies of the good folks of Liverpool. Our Paisley gaberlunzie does not intend “with cauk and keel to win his bread,” but rests his hopes on the music of a hand organ and the grimaces of a large monkey, with both of which he has, as we understand, already provided himself.”

The travels continued, on September 2nd 1829 he was seen in Oxford, recorded by the Berkshire Chronicle “...a person in disguise, with bagpipes, paraded the principal streets in Oxford, dressed in a blue cap, a coarse grey short coat, and trowsers, with a dark handkerchief around his neck, collecting money. - He put up at the Three Goats Inn, and stated he had been recognised but once during his journey, and that was at Portsmouth. Various conjectures are afloat as to who this singular character could be.”

Then, in October the wandering piper's appearance was reported in the Derby Mercury, still full of mystery; “On Monday, a bag-piper of singular appearance passed through the town, and attracted considerable notice. His dress was of coarse frieze, his cap of the same material, and was tied under his chin by a black ribbon. His figure was good, and he appeared between fifty and sixty years of age. He played on his instrument as he went along, but he did not solicit alms. Indeed, his countenance indicated he was travelling more for fun than for money. He returned the salutation of the writer of this account, whose curiosity led him to follow the stranger into a small room in the Old White Hart, in the Bridge Gate, with a mingled grace and archness which seemed to say I am not what I appear to be. His hands also were those of a gentleman.”

In November the wandering piper was making his way through Leicestershire and by early December 1829 had arrived at Stamford in Lincolnshire, where an old woman, giving him a penny, curtsied and said “I know you my lord.” The wandering piper denied this, saying he was “no laird” but it all kept up the intrigue. By late January 1830 he was in Winchester still playing his bagpipes long after the date when the newspapers said he would have concluded his wager. His arrival in Brighton soon after was not met with the success he was accustomed to, as he tried to play 'O'er the hills and far away' he was followed by local boys questioning his identity and challenging his wig and costume, so that he left rather sooner than he might have planned.

The attention from regional newspapers seems to lessen from 1830, though the wandering piper continued his travels. Reports from this point on suggest that he had won the wager and this was how he was able to continue in this lifestyle. In 1830 he appeared in Devizes, Portsmouth, Sherborne and Southampton. Then in October 1832 he was playing in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, still in his Scottish dress and wearing the green spectacles. Though it seems not to have been widely published, J. M. Johnson printed a lithograph in 1832 of a drawing by Thomas Charles Wageman of 'The Wandering Piper' which clearly shows his clothing including the cap, black cravat and green spectacles by which he was recognised. It also shows the bagpipes to be border pipes, in the bellows-blown, one bass and two tenor drone form we are familiar with. As has often been discussed in Chanter, the print is likely to be reversed as it shows the bag, bellows and fingering to be on the opposite side to that we are familiar with today.

By January 1833 he was recorded as being in Durham, heading for Berwick but intending to stop at Newcastle, and North Shields en route. The Newcastle Journal reported that there had been an extension on the period of the wager, following an injury obtained by the piper whilst at Carlow in Ireland requiring fifteen months rest at the mansion of Sir Thomas Butler. The paper hoped that the wandering piper would be successful in beating his fiddler rival, so that the hospitality of Great Britain would be clearly demonstrated.

But the mystery didn't end there. Through 1833 the wandering piper was also seen in Hereford, then disappears from newspaper accounts for a couple of years. Surviving letters in the Library and Archive of Canada reveal he was in Montreal in July of1834, asking the Mayor for permission to play in public buildings, (the Mayor was ashamed to say he was only in charge of markets and the piper would have to ask the Justices of the Peace instead!) In 1837 though he re-appeared once more in British newspapers, again at Chester, playing at a fundraising concert at the 'Town Hall' (more correctly 'The Old Exchange' a lovely building which sadly burnt down in 1862), also at Tiverton in Devon, and also even made a trip to New York. But there was a major development in the story that year. The wandering piper himself wrote a letter addressed to “the British Public” explaining his story, and this was published in many newspapers. The following is how it appeared in the Oxford Journal;

“The unprecedented civility which I have met with from all grades of society in Great Britain and Ireland, during my rambles as the 'Wandering Piper' has induced me to lay before them the following accurate statement of an undertaking, which, as yet, stands unrivalled in the annals of sporting. This much-talked-of campaign originated in the London Coffee-house on the 4th of Nov. 1824 among fourteen worthies who had retired there to put the copestone on a dinner given by an American gentleman, who was then making the tour of Europe. In the course of the conversation, politics, religion, and the internal affairs in general of Great Britain and America were freely discussed and among other topics, the laws affecting the poor of both nations were not forgotten. Much was said by the American party of their charitable institutions, their warlike prowess, magnanimity, independence and unexampled hospitality. These arguments were so vigorously replied to by those representing the British Isles; the swindling and thieving propensities of the Yankees, their delph china ware, mahogany cucumber seeds, and wooden nutmegs were dealt out without mercy or remorse. In the course of this lengthened discussion, it was remarked by one of the members as a lift to his own side of the question, that beggars and itinerant musicians had been known to make a competency for life in England in a very short period: whereas in America they might pipe like Orpheus, or like Tommy Puck in Aster Fair and 'draw iron tears down Pluto's cheek' without being able to coax a copper out of the grasp of a Yankee. A good deal of disquisition ensued pro and con, which terminated in my finally and firmly agreeing to travel through Great Britain, Ireland and the United States of America, disguised as a piper. Large wagers were offered and accepted on both sides, his Majesty's lieges still contending, that, for one shilling the piper would receive in America, he would clear double that sum in Britain and Ireland. I accordingly commenced my piping in the summer of 1825 at Morpeth, a borough in Northumberland, reached London in the course of a few weeks, visited several towns in the county of Kent, and was driving a tolerably fair business, when my drone was silenced all at once, by the interference of a relation whom I durst not contend with. This gentleman died in the beginning of 1827, in consequence of which hostilities were again renewed in July of the following year, in connection with a young man who, like myself, had more money than judgement, and who had bound himself to travel with a fiddle on the continent of Europe. To this gentleman some of the journals gave the name Count Bender, but peace to his manes, he died at Rome in the end of 1831.

“The public have already been made acquainted, through the columns of the different journals, with my perambulations in the United Kingdom, and the unprecedented kindness shown to me by some of the first families in Ireland, during a confinement of many months, occasioned by the overturning of a stage coach in the county of Carlow. To Sir Thomas Butler and family, and the Rev. Mr Roberts, &c., I lie under such obligations, that a whole life, devoted to their service would be but an inadequate recompense. Various attempts had been made to put an end to this arduous frolic, and, at the time above-mentioned, a northern nobleman used great exertions to accomplish the wished for consummation, but without effect. I continued me wanderings for upwards of twelve months after my recovery, and then sailed for America, in March 1832, where I succeeded far beyond my own expectations, or those of the other parties concerned; and had I been at liberty or disposed to give the present explanation while in that country, there is little doubt by my earnings would have amounted to double the sum. As it is, I collected 27,600 dollars, every cent of which I expended or bestowed on charitable institutions. It is my intention to wind up the whole of this complicated freak by performing once more, in all the principal cities and towns in Great Britain and Ireland, after the same manner that I did in the United States – that is, to solicit permission from the Chief Magistrate of every place that I visit, and also the use of some public building to perform in. In America, the state-houses, court-rooms, theatres, city halls, and in many instances churches, were freely tendered. Should the same immunity be granted to me in this country, I have no doubt but I shall leave the field with honour to myself, and the heartfelt good wishes of thousands, both rich and poor. I certainly anticipate much pleasure from my second tour through the Great Nation, as I expect to see many of the cheerful faces with which I was so much pleases on former occasions, and to shake many a friendly hand.

“Although my gains have been invariably applied to the use of the poor on both sides of the Atlantic, still I wish the world to know, that I am under no obligation whatever to give them to private individuals or charitable establishments; nor do I publish the amount of my former donations as a lure to bring people forward to my future exhibitions. I consider the money which I receive for piping entirely my own property, and shall in all cases use it accordingly. Public opinion has been much at variance concerning me, and all descriptions of titles, from a Prince of the Royal Blood to a common mendicant, have been conferred on me. I merely announce myself as Mr Stuart, the Wandering Piper – by which appellation I wish only to be known for the present – and although I allow that large bets are pending on the favourable termination of this extraordinary feat, yet, I never told any one how far I am personally implicated. Every one who has heard of me is aware, that my principal aim has all along been to preserve my incognito, and to those busy bodies who try to unmask me while out of my piping garb, I feel under no very particular obligation, and consequently shall treat them with the contempt they merit.

“My present tour will be concluded in much less time that the former, as I intend to travel with a horse and carriage; and I bind myself, that all secrets will be disclosed without reserve at the conclusion. To the gentlemen of the press who have at all times spoken well of me, I feel grateful for a good opinion from so high a quarter; to a very few editors and private individuals who have represented me in a different light, I shall only say, I trust that they will never change their opinion of THE WANDERING PIPER. Liverpool, September 9 1837.”

Our wandering piper did indeed continue his travels,appearing in places as far afield as Gravesend, Paisley, Norfolk and Sligo in 1838, but sadly he never completed his planned itinerary. On Saturday 23rd February 1839 the following notice from a Dublin newspaper was reprinted in the London Standard; “Death of the Wandering Piper'. This singular individual died on Sunday night, in Mercer's Hospital, in this city, where he had been for three weeks previously. It is stated in an advertisement in the papers that 'Graham Stuart, commonly called the wandering piper, died in the hospital, having previously made his will, and thereby bequeathed all his property for the uses and purposes of the said hospital.”

A few more short comments appeared in other papers and allusions to endeavours being like that of 'the wandering piper' can be found in newspapers over the following few years, after which his story seems to have vanished into obscurity. I was pleased to dig it out from these newspapers and journals after much time spent trawling through the British Library's online digitised collections. I think it was an admirable, if eccentric, endeavour well worth celebrating.